System Shock 2

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System Shock 2
Systemshock2box.jpg
The cover art of System Shock 2, depicting the Von Braun and main antagonist, SHODAN.
Developer(s) Irrational Games
Looking Glass Studios
Publisher(s) Electronic Arts
Night Dive Studios (digital)
Producer(s) Josh Randall
Designer(s) Ken Levine
Programmer(s) Rob Fermier
Artist(s) Gareth Hinds
Writer(s) Ken Levine
Composer(s) Eric Brosius, Ramin Djawadi, Josh Randall
Engine Enhanced Dark Engine[1]
Platform(s) Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux
Release date(s)
  • NA August 11, 1999 (Win)[2]
  • WW June 18, 2013 (OS X)[3]
  • WW April 1, 2014 (Linux)[4]
Genre(s) First-person shooter,
action role-playing,[5] survival horror[6]
Mode(s) Single-player, cooperative
Distribution CD-ROM, download

System Shock 2 is a first-person shooter action role-playing survival horror video game for Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X and Linux. The title was designed by Ken Levine and co-developed by Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios. Originally intended to be a standalone title, its story was changed during production into a sequel to the 1994 PC game System Shock; the alterations were made when Electronic Arts—who owned the System Shock franchise rights—signed on as publisher. System Shock 2 was released on August 11, 1999, in North America.

The game takes place on board a starship in a cyberpunk depiction of 2114. The player assumes the role of a lone soldier trying to stem the outbreak of a genetic infection that has devastated the ship. Like System Shock, gameplay consists of first-person shooting and exploration. It also incorporates role-playing system elements, in which the player can develop unique skills and traits, such as hacking and psionic abilities.

System Shock 2 received positive reviews when released, but failed to meet commercial sales expectations. Many critics later determined that the game was highly influential in subsequent game design, particularly on first person shooters, and considered it far ahead of its time. It has been included in several "greatest games of all time" lists. In 2006, Computer and Video Games reported that System Shock 3 may be under development, but conclusive details have not surfaced about its project's status. In 2007, Irrational Games released a self-proclaimed spiritual successor to the System Shock series, titled BioShock, to critical acclaim and strong sales.

Gameplay[edit]

An in-game System Shock 2 gameplay screenshot, showcasing the interaction menus. A hand is holding a silver pistol while the mouse is pointed at an unknown robotical being, while on top of the screenm several minor objects are shown organised as in inventory.
An in-game screenshot displaying the inventory at the top; health, psionic points, nanites, and cyber modules are at the bottom left, and the cyber interface and weapon information are at the bottom right.

Like in its predecessor, System Shock, gameplay in System Shock 2 is an amalgamation of the action role-playing game and survival horror genres. The developers achieved this gameplay design by rendering the experience as a standard first-person shooter but seamlessly adding a character customization and development system, which are considered as signature role-play elements.[2] The player uses melee and projectile weapons to defeat enemies, while a role-playing system allows the development of useful abilities. Navigation is presented from a first-person view and complemented with a heads-up display that shows character and weapon information, a map, and a drag and drop inventory.[7]

The backstory is explained progressively through the player's acquisition of audio logs and encounters with ghostly apparitions.[2] At the beginning of the game the player chooses a career in a branch of the Unified National Nominate, a fictional military organization. Each branch of service gives the player a set of starting bonuses composed of certain skills, though he may thereafter freely develop himself as he chooses. Marines begin with bonuses to weaponry, Navy officers are skilled in repairing and hacking, and OSA agents get a starting set of psionic powers.[8][9]

The player can upgrade his skills by using "cyber-modules" given as rewards for completing objectives such as searching the ship, and then spend them at devices called "cyber-upgrade units" to obtain enhanced skills.[8][10] Operating system (O/S) units allow one-time character upgrades to be made (e.g. permanent health enhancement). An in-game currency, called "nanites", may be spent on items at vending machines, including ammunition supplies and health packs. "Quantum Bio-Reconstruction Machines" can be activated and reconstitute the player for 10 nanites if they die inside the area in which the machine resides. Otherwise, the game ends and progress must be resumed from a save point.[10] The player can hack devices, such as keypads to open alternate areas and vending machines to reduce prices. When a hack is attempted, a minigame begins that features a grid of green nodes; the player must connect three in a straight row to succeed. Optionally, electronic lock picks, called "ICE-picks", can be found that will automatically hack a machine, regardless of its difficulty.[11]

Throughout the game, the player can procure various weapons, including melee weapons, pistols, shotguns, and alien weapons.[12] Non-melee weapons degrade with use and will break if they are not regularly repaired with maintenance tools.[13] There are a variety of ammunition types, each of which is most damaging to a specific enemy. For example, organic enemies are vulnerable to anti-personnel rounds, while mechanical foes are weak against armor-piercing rounds. Similarly, energy weapons cause the most damage against robots and cyborgs, and the annelid-made exotic weaponry is particularly harmful to organic targets. Because ammunition is scarce, to be effective the player must use it sparingly and carefully search rooms for supplies.[14]

The game also includes a research function. When new objects are encountered in the game, especially enemies, their organs can be collected and, when combined with chemicals found in storage rooms, the player can research the enemies and thus improve their damage against them. Similarly, some exotic weapons and items can only be used after being researched.[13] OSA agents effectively have a separate weapons tree available to them. Psionic powers can be learned, such as invisibility, fireballs and teleportation.[9]

Plot[edit]

In 2072, when the Citadel Station was destroyed, TriOptimum's attempts to cover-up the incident were exposed to the media and brought up on charges from multiple individuals and companies for the ensuing scandal, the virus developed there which killed the station's population, and the ruthless malevolent A.I supercomputer named SHODAN, which controlled, and eventually destroyed the Citadel Station in hopes of enslaving and destroying humanity. After a massive number of trials, the company went to bankruptcy.

30 years after the events, the company's failed stocks and assets were bought by a Russian oligarch named Anatoly Korenchkin, who restored the company to its former status in the next decades, and, with producing healthcare and consumer products, is now signing weapons contracts with various military organizations, private and political-owned, including the United National Nominate (UNN), a UN successor which is opposed to TriOptimum.

In January 2114, 42 years after the Citadel events and 12 years into rebuilding TriOptimum, the company created an experimental FTL starship, the Von Braun, which is now on its maiden voyage. The ship is also followed by the UNN space vessel, the Rickenbacker, which is controlled by Captain William Bedford Diego, son of Edward Diego, the Citadel Station's infamous commander. Because the Rickenbacker does not have an FTL system of its own, the two ships are attached for the trip.[15]

In July 2114, 5 months into the journey, the ships respond to a distress signal from the planet Tau Ceti V, outside the Solar System.[16] A rescue team is sent to the planet's surface where they discover strange eggs;[17] these eggs infect the rescue team and integrate them into an alien communion known as the Many. The infection eventually spreads to both ships and the ships are overrun with the virus with both of the captains dead.

Owing to a computer malfunction, the remaining soldier awakens with amnesia in a cryo-tube on the medical deck of the Von Braun. He is immediately contacted by another survivor, Dr. Janice Polito, who guides him to safety before the cabin depressurizes. She demands that he rendezvous with her on deck 4 of the Von Braun.[18] Along the way, the soldier battles the infected crew members. The Many also telepathically communicate with him, attempting to convince him to join them. After restarting the ship's engine core, the soldier reaches deck 4 and discovers that Polito is dead. He is then confronted by SHODAN. It is revealed she has been posing as Polito to gain the soldier's trust.[19]

SHODAN mentions that she is responsible for creating the Many through her bioengineering experiments on Citadel Station. The Hacker, who created her, ejected the grove that contained her experiments to prevent them contaminating Earth, an act that allowed part of SHODAN to survive in the grove. The grove crash-landed on Tau Ceti V. While SHODAN went into forced hibernation, The Many evolved beyond her control.[20] SHODAN tells the soldier that his only chance for survival lies in helping destroy her creations.[21] Efforts to regain control of XERXES, the main computer on the Von Braun, fail. SHODAN informs the soldier that destroying the ship is their only option, but he must transmit her program to the Rickenbacker first.[22] While en route, the soldier briefly encounters two survivors, Tommy Suarez and Rebecca Siddons, who flee the ship aboard an escape pod.[23]

With the transfer complete, the soldier travels to the Rickenbacker and learns both ships have been enveloped by the infection's source, a gigantic mass of bio-organic tissue.[24] The soldier enters the biomass and destroys its core, stopping the infection. SHODAN congratulates him and tells of her intentions to merge real space and cyberspace through the Von Braun's faster-than-light drive.[25] The soldier confronts SHODAN in cyberspace and defeats her. The final scene shows Tommy and Rebecca receiving a message from the Von Braun. Tommy responds, saying they will return and noting that Rebecca is acting strange. Rebecca is shown speaking in a SHODAN-like voice, asking Tommy if he "likes her new look", as the screen fades to black.

Development[edit]

A green-cloaked man is staring from the right corner through black goggles to another deformed human being, whom is close to a dead body of a woman laying on the floor along with several blood marks and some destroyed things.
Horror is a key focus of System Shock 2. This concept art depicts the protagonist encountering an infected crewmember.

Development of System Shock 2 began in 1997 when Looking Glass Studios approached Irrational Games with an idea to co-develop a new game.[26] The development team were fans of System Shock and sought to create a similar game. Early story ideas were similar to the novella Heart of Darkness. In an early draft, the player was tasked with assassinating an insane commander on a starship.[27] The original title of the game, according to its pitch document, was Junction Point. The philosophy of the design was to continue to develop the concept of a dungeon crawler, like Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, in a science fiction setting, the basis for System Shock. However, the press mistook System Shock to be closer to a Doom clone which was cited for poor financial success of System Shock. With Junction Point, the goal was to add in a significant role-playing elements and a persistent storyline as to distance the game from Doom.[28][29]

The title took 18 months to create with a budget of $1.7 million[30] and was pitched to several publishers, until Electronic Arts—who owned the rights to the Shock franchise—responded by suggesting the game become a sequel to System Shock. The development team agreed; Electronic Arts became the publisher and story changes were made to incorporate the franchise.[27] The project was allotted one year to be completed, and to compensate for the short time frame, the staff began working with Looking Glass Studio's unfinished Dark Engine, the same engine used to create Thief: The Dark Project.[30]

The designers included role-playing elements in the game. Similar to Ultima Underworld, another Looking Glass Studios project, the environment in System Shock 2 is persistent and constantly changes without the player's presence.[31][32] Paper-and-pencil role-playing games were also influential; the character customization system was based on Traveller's methodology and was implemented in the fictional military branches which,[31] by allowing multiple character paths, the player could receive a more open-ended gameplay experience.[33] Horror was a key focus and four major points were identified to successfully incorporate it. Isolation was deemed primary, which resulted in the player having little physical contact with other sentient beings. Secondly, vulnerability was created by focusing on a fragile character. Last were the inclusion of moody sound effects and "the intelligent placement of lighting and shadows".[34] The game's lead designer, Ken Levine, oversaw the return of System Shock villain SHODAN. Part of Levine's design was to ally the player with her,[27] but he also believed that game characters were too trusting, stating "good guys are good, bad guys are bad. What you see and perceive is real." Levine sought to challenge this notion by having SHODAN betray the player: "Sometimes characters are betrayed, but the player never is. I wanted to violate that trust and make the player feel that they, and not [only] the character, were led on and deceived." This design choice was controversial with the development team.[35]

Several problems were encountered during the project. Because the team comprised two software companies, tension emerged regarding job assignments and some developers left the project. Additionally, many employees were largely inexperienced, but in retrospect project manager Jonathan Chey felt this was advantageous, stating "inexperience also bred enthusiasm and commitment that might not have been present with a more jaded set of developers."[30] The Dark Engine posed problems of its own. It was unfinished, forcing the programmers to fix software bugs when encountered. In contrast, working closely with the engine code allowed them to write additional features.[30] Not all setbacks were localized; a demonstration build at E3 was hindered when it was requested all guns be removed from the presentation due to then-recent Columbine High School massacre.[34]

Release[edit]

A demo for the game, featuring a tutorial and a third of the first mission, was released on August 2, 1999.[36] Nine days later, System Shock 2 was shipped to retailers.[37] An enhancement patch was released a month later and added significant features, such as co-operative multiplayer and control over weapon degradation and enemy respawn rates.[38] A port was planned for the Dreamcast but was canceled.[39]

Reception[edit]

Reception
Aggregate scores
Aggregator Score
GameRankings 92%[48]
Metacritic 92/100[49]
Review scores
Publication Score
AllGame 4/5 stars[40]
Computer and Video Games 9.5/10[42]
Edge 8/10[41]
GamePro 5/5 stars[43]
Game Revolution A[44]
GameSpot 8.5/10[1]
IGN 9.0/10[2]
PC Gamer US 95%[45]
PC Zone 96%[46]
Computer Games Magazine 5/5 stars[47]

System Shock 2 received over a dozen awards, including seven "Game of the Year" prizes.[50] Reviews were very positive and lauded the title for its hybrid gameplay, moody sound design, and engaging story.[49] System Shock 2 is regarded by critics as highly influential, particularly on first-person shooters and the horror genre. In a retrospective article, GameSpot declared the title "well ahead of its time" and stated that it "upped the ante in dramatic and mechanical terms" by creating a horrific gameplay experience.[35] Despite critical acclaim, the title did not perform well commercially;[51] only 58,671 copies were sold by April 2000.[52]

Several publications praised the title for its open-ended gameplay. With regard to character customization, Trent Ward of IGN stated the best element of the role playing system was allowing gamers to "play the game as completely different characters", and felt this made each play-through unique.[2] Erik Reckase writing for Just Adventure agreed, saying "There are very few games that allow you [to] play the way you want".[53] Alec Norands of Allgame believed that the different character classes made the game “diverse enough to demand instant replayability."[40] Robert Mayer from Computer Games Magazine called System Shock 2 "a game that truly defies classification in a single genre", and ensured that "the action is occasionally fast-paced, it's more often tactical, placing a premium on thought rather than on reflexes."[47]

A number of critics described the game as frightening. Computer and Video Games described the atmosphere as "gripping" and guaranteed readers they would "jump out of [their] skin" numerous times.[42] Allgame found the sound design particularly effective, calling it “absolutely, teeth-clenchingly disturbing,”[40] while PC Gamer '​s William Harms christened System Shock 2 as the most frightening game he had ever played.[45] Some critics found the weapon degradation system to be irritating,[54] and members of the development team have also expressed misgivings about the system.[26][55] The RPG system was another point of contention; GameSpot described the job system as "badly unbalanced" because the player can develop skills outside their career choice.[1] Allgame felt similarly about the system, saying it "leaned towards a hacker character".[40]

Along with Deus Ex, Sid Shuman of GamePro christened System Shock 2 "[one of the] twin barrels of modern [first-person shooter] innovation", owing to its complex role-playing gameplay.[56] IGN writer Cam Shea referred to the game as "another reinvention of the FPS genre", citing the story, characters, and RPG system.[57] PC Zone lauded the game as a "fabulous example of a modern-day computer game" and named it "a sci-fi horror masterpiece".[46] The title has been inducted into a number of features listing the greatest games ever made, including ones by GameSpy,[58] Edge,[59] Empire,[60] IGN,[61] GameSpot[35] and PC Gamer.[62] IGN also ranked System Shock 2 as the 35th greatest first-person shooter of all time.[63] SHODAN has proven to be a popular character among most critics, including IGN,[64] GameSpot[65] and The Phoenix.[66]

Legacy[edit]

System Shock 2 has amassed a cult following with fans, many of whom have demanded a sequel.[61] Some fans are active in the modding community where collaborations to update the game's graphics take place. One graphical enhancement mod, titled Rebirth, replaces many low-polygonal models with higher quality ones.[67] Another mod, the Shock Texture Upgrade Project (SHTUP), significantly increases the resolution of in-game textures.[35] The community at Sshock2, a fan site, have also released a free level editor entitled ShockEd, which is a repackaged version of Looking Glass Studios' own editor.[68][69]

In 2007, 2K Boston/2K Australia—previously (and again, as of January 2009[70]) known as Irrational Games—released a spiritual successor to the System Shock series, entitled BioShock.[71] The game takes place in an abandoned underwater utopian community destroyed by the genetic modification of its populace and shares many gameplay elements with System Shock 2: reconstitution stations can be activated, allowing the player to be resurrected when they die; hacking, ammo conservation, and exploration are integral parts of gameplay; and unique powers may be acquired via plasmids, special abilities that function similarly to psionics in System Shock 2.[72] The two titles also share plot similarities and employ audio logs and encounters with ghostly apparitions to reveal backstory.[73] In BioShock Infinite, Irrational Games included a gameplay feature called the "1999 Mode", specifically in reference to System Shock 2 '​s release year, designed to provide a similar game experience, with a higher difficulty and long-lasting effects of choices made, that would remind players of System Shock '​s unforgiving nature.[74][75]

On January 9, 2006, GameSpot reported that Electronic Arts had renewed its trademark protection on the System Shock name,[76] leading to speculation that System Shock 3 might be under development.[77][78] Three days later, Computer and Video Games reported a reliable source had come forward and confirmed the title's production. Electronic Arts UK made no comment when confronted with the information.[79] PC Gamer UK stated the team behind The Godfather: The Game (EA Redwood Shores) was charged with its creation.[80] Ken Levine, when asked whether he would helm a third installment, replied "that question is completely out of my hands".[81] He expressed optimism at the prospect of System Shock 3,[82] but revealed that EA had not shown interest in his own proposal for a sequel, and was not optimistic with regards to their abilities.[83][84] Electronic Arts ultimately never confirmed a new title in the series and allowed the System Shock trademark registration to lapse. Redwood Shores' next release was 2008's Dead Space, a game with noted similarities in theme and presentation to the System Shock series.[1]

At GOG.com, a digital distribution website that sells popular older titles, System Shock 2 was the game most requested to be added to the catalog, but they were unable to do so until February 2013 as the rights to the title were caught in complications between Electronic Arts and Meadowbrook Insurance Group (a subsidiary of Star Insurance Company), the entity that acquired the assets of Looking Glass Studios on their closure,[85] though according to a lawyer for Star Insurance, they themselves have since acquired the lingering intellectual property rights from EA.[86] Stephen Kick of Night Dive Studios, seeking to bring the game to modern systems, started negotiations with the rights holders in October 2012, and was able to secure the rights to update and release the game for modern systems. Kick worked with GOG.com for a timed-exclusive release on the site; the title was later available on Steam on May 10, 2013.[87] This version, considered by GOG.com to be a "collector's edition", includes updates to the original game to make it work on modern systems while still allowing user-made modifications to be applied, and contains additional material such as the game's soundtrack, maps of the Von Braun, and the original pitch document for the game.[88] The update rights also allowed a Mac OS X version of System Shock 2 to be subsequently released on June 18, 2013 through GOG.com.[3] On April 2014 a Linux version was also released[4].

References[edit]

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